CBSO/Gardner: Falstaff review – played in the highest of end-of-term spirits

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
A first-class cast joined the CBSO for this concert performance of Verdi’s final masterpiece, and extracted every ounce of comic possibility from the music

“Tutto nel mondo è burla!” says Sir John Falstaff. All the world’s a joke. Quite so. The line which kicks off the jolly fugue where, out of mayhem, Verdi creates harmony, seemed even more pertinent than usual. The comic genius of the Italian master’s last great work allowed the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s annual opera in concert to proceed in the highest of end-of-term spirits, marking the close of the CBSO’s Our Shakespeare season. Having marshalled a first-class cast, and in dynamic form on the podium, it was Edward Gardner, in his final appearance as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, who masterminded the occasion, sparky and sparkling from beginning to life-affirming final chord.

In the title role was Ambrogio Maestri, with girth to match his vocal might, and whose authoritative assumption of the fat knight’s persona is internationally acclaimed. Maestri, every bit as magisterial as his name, extrapolated every ounce, no, every gram, of comic possibility from the music, varying his sound from big, booming resonance to mischievous falsetto and bringing lovely variety to the colouring.

Ambrogio Maestri, who played Falstaff in the CBSO concert.
Vocal might … Ambrogio Maestri played Falstaff in the CBSO concert. Photograph: Dario Acosta

Remarkably, this was a performance with neither director nor props, but with Gardner making the action flow so naturally and with such pace as to belie that fact. The singers wore evening dress but, in the case of the men, cleverly subverted, with Lukas Jakobski’s tall Pistola and Peter van Hulle’s shorter Bardolph roughed up to make a classic partnership. The wit and humour of the Garter Inn came over well, both Falstaff’s relationship with his sidekicks and the nature of the man, with his twin obsessions for food and women, manifestly clear. Not only did Gardner get the essential comic timing of this just right – and thus the rest of the opera – but in the part of the Garter landlord, handed Falstaff the bar tab to cue another grand bit of Maestri belly-boasting. As Ford, the husband that Falstaff plans cuckolding, Nicholas Pallesen, no slouch in the embonpoint department either, was more fun than usual, trousers hitched to show crazy black and white brogues. An impressively rich baritone, he delivered the È Sogno? with a furious passion and, in disguise as Fontana, rivalled Maestri for overall panache.

But for the scheming against Falstaff to work, the quartet of women must have similar clout. Corinne Winters’s Alice and Justina Gringyte’s Meg were a fearsome pair: Winters’ soprano soared, Gringyte’s mezzo was so good as to make one wish she had even more to sing. Jane Henschel’s waddling Mistress Quickly was suitably fruity, while Sofia Fomina’s Nannetta mixed a typically Russian edge to the voice with creamier tones and pretty vibrato. Her duets with Sam Furness’s ardent Fenton were delightful. Of the laundry-basket there was none: Maestri held a flower to signal his concealment as though it were an invisibility cloak. And it did the trick. Tutti gabatti! All fooled and happily so. This was the CBSO troupe covering themselves with glory.

Contributor

Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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